Introduction: Gray

Larry Pearce
1/2/03  rev. 2/28/13 & 6/15/16

William S. Gray farm West Deer Twp., PA

William S. Gray farm
West Deer Twp., PA

I was born in 1948, and my mother was Ruth Elizabeth [Gray] Pearce (1917-2005). Her father was Paul Barton Gray (1892-1977). His father was Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928), and his father was William Sylvester Gray (1816-1879). My great-great-great grandfather was James Gray, who if the 1850 Allegheny County, PA, census is correct and refers to our “Pioneer,” was born in 1780. In a recent article exploring alternative narratives as to his origins, there is some doubt. There are actually two James Grays listed in the 1850 census, about the same age. The other was a Methodist minister born in Ireland in 1784 who settled first in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side), then moved just up the Ohio River to Sewickley (Borne). Family tradition says that Our James sailed from Northern Ireland with the Rev. Abraham Boyd. We know now that the trip was in 1772, so our family tradition is incorrect. James hadn’t been born yet. Some of the Grays  became members of the Bull Creek Presbyterian Church in West Deer Township where the Rev. Boyd and many of the older Grays since then have been buried. This essay is about his seven American generations in my line. Granted, not much is known about James and his supposedly Scottish or Scots-Irish-born wife Mary Patterson. Son William Sylvester Gray served as a teamster for the Union cause in the Civil War. His sons Robert and Samuel served as well. I’ve written much about that era. For now, let’s look at where the Gray name came from and what it means. Let’s learn of some of the famous Grays of British and Scottish history before getting into what we do know about our own family.

Our name, according to historical sources, may have multiple spellings and several meanings. “Gray,” sometimes with an “e” instead of an “a” [Grey as in Greyhound] and sometimes with an “e” after the “y” [Graye], may simply have referred to a family headed by a “gray-haired man.”  The name may have reference to one who came originally from Graye in Haute Saone, France [Gradus Estate in the Calvados region]. The Latin word “gratus” means “welcome” or “pleasing.” One source claims:

The Duke of Normandy granted the castle and lands of Croy (or Gray) in Picardy,   France, to his Great Chamberlain [officer in charge of the household], Fulbert, whose daughter Arlotta is said to have been William the Conqueror’s mother. Fulbert’s descendants took the name “de Gray.” (Blue Chip Products)

History records that King Robert Bruce of Scotland in 13th century, as a reward for loyalty in the fight for independence from England, gave the de Grays lands in the Carse of Gowrie. Because of continued support of the Crown, their wealth and influence spread until in 1437 Gray of Fowlis was named a peer of Parliament and made a Lord in 1444. A favorite of James VI of Scotland, The Master of Gray, was a mediator between King James [soon to be King James I of England] and Queen Elizabeth I during Mary’s imprisonment. His son, Patrick, was implicated with James II in the murder of the Earl of Douglas, and he was tried for treason, but his life was spared and he was exiled. His son was appointed Lord Justice General of Scotland in 1506. With several similar and impressive official titles, including Hereditary Sheriffs of Forfarshire, the Gray’s properties over the centuries included:

  • Broughty Castle
  • Castle Huntly
  • Kifauns near Perth
  • Carntyne in Glasgow
  • Ayrshire
  • Sordell
  • Ardinish, and
  • Skibo of Andrew Carnegie fame.

Apparently, the Gray clan was so powerful that clans of the Highlands such as Glas(s) and MacGlashan changed their name to Gray after moving to the Lowlands. Another source, when describing clan tartans, says, “The Gray family can be septs [related by blood] to either Clan Stewart or Clan Sutherland” (WWW.SCOTTISH-TARTANS-SOCIETY). The clan motto is “Anchor Fast, Anchor.”

The Old English had a word, “groeg,” that referred to the hair on a beard. James P. Weavers mentions a source who believe the surname was actually a nick-name for a person of sallow complexion (WWW.ELECTRICSCOTLAND.COM/WEBCLANS/DTOG/GRAY2.HTML). One Gaelic family name, “Riabhach,” is thought to be similar to Gray. For reasons unknown, some high ranking Grays in England changed the spelling of their name to Grey, including Lady Jane Grey. [Read about the nine day queen in another article.]

The Statistical Almanac lists the Gray name today as 75th in the United States with around 350,000 persons using it as a surname. Our Old World Gray ancestors were from Northern Ireland, transplanted Scots and/or northern border Englishmen. [Read about their reputation as “Border Reivers.”] The earliest lists of American family names were made at the early 17th century settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock and contain fewer than five “Grayes.” Over a century and a half later, in 1790, our patriarch, the young James Gray sailed to American and followed the trail of so many Scotch and Scots-Irish to Western Pennsylvania, where land could be had for almost nothing and the often steep hillsides reminded them of farms and pastures back home. Today, his descendants number in the thousands. In the forthcoming articles we’ll present what research reveals, but obviously, most of the verifiable information begins about halfway between James and myself, with Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928). He was James’ grandson and my great-grandfather.

In addition to providing a family tree with names and dates, we’ll talk to the living descendants. We’ll share and actual letter from a Civil War camp and follow one of the Grays westward to his promised land. And of course, no genealogical narrative would be complete without highlighting our 50 years of modern Gray reunions. So, after the following seven or more generation tree stretching over 300 years from my American children to James and perhaps Nigel of Scotland or Northern Ireland, we’ll begin.

Works Cited

Borne, Kathy. E-mail via Ancestry.Com “Gray Family Message Board.” 12/30/02.

Genealogical and Personal History of Western Pennsylvania. 3 vols. New York: Lewis Historical Publications, 1915.

Hook, J.N. Family Names: How Our Surnames Came to America. New York: MacMillen, 1982.

New Dictionary of American Family Names, 1973.

Last revised 12/1/17

3 Responses to Introduction: Gray

  1. admin says:

    I, too, have “The Gray Clan” book compiled by Mrs. Grace S. Graham.
    Thomas Gray/Mary (James) Gray had a son born in Scotland (1786), James Gray, who married Margaret Peterson in Pa.
    I haven’t been able to find any info on Gray Clan reunions and have not been able to investigate any Butler County, Pa. connections.
    Thomas Gray and his brothers left Scotland somewhere around 1790ish, plus or minus a few years. I have no idea from where they sailed nor which Port they landed in – Canada or USA?. Thomas Gray and family settled close to Connoquenessing, Pa. He was a farmer.
    “The Gray Clan” book was assembled and typed by my Great Grandmother, Grace
    S. Graham – no date – ?1950s- but contact is John C. Maharg, 111 South Main
    St., Butler, Pa.
    Per ‘The Gray Clan’ book, “four brothers… James, William, John and
    Thomas. They all came from Scotland together, separating at Philadelphia –
    or ‘Upland’ (now Chester) some say ‘at the great Camp’ some, ‘at Braddock’s
    Field’ Thomas and James came to the place known as “Little Scotland” the
    others stayed in the Cumberland Valley”.
    Per ‘The Gray Clan’ book, James Gray was born in Scotland 1786, died 1868.
    Married Margaret Peterson (born 1786, died 1848) – they married in
    America. Their first son was Peterson Gray born in Forward Twp 1813, died
    1869, married Sarah Calvin (born 1817, died.1890). I am their descendant.
    Debbie Cooper

  2. Kathy Gray says:

    I found this page when researching Thomas Gray (1761) of the “The Gray Clan” book mentioned in the earlier comment. My husband is a descendant of James Gray, born in Scotland 1786. I am interested in connecting with other descendants researching the family.

    Is your James Gray born 1780 somehow related to Grays of “The Gray Clan” book? Hats off to Mrs. Grace S. Graham and the other family members who worked on compiling the book. Obviously, there are many of us out there who have come across it and sparked interest in the family heritage!

    Also, you mention “Skibo” of Andrew Carnegie fame [see “The Grays From the Isles” for more].” Is that a book or website. I did a quick Google search but didn’t turn up anything that matched that.

    Thank you!

    • admin says:

      Hi Kathy. The short answer is that I’m just finishing an article dealing with several James Grays of Western Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I’m finding conflicting information, but I’m pretty sure there’s no direct connection to the Butler County one in “The Gray Clan,” despite their close proximity.
      I wrote about “Skibo Castle” on this website, but here a complete article for your consideration:
      What Gray family and where are you from?

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